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Miracle man

Gregor Paul

There comes a point when good luck starts to seem more like good management. A point when the evidence suggests that the uncanny isn’t that at all, but calculated, deliberate and sustainable.

Will Jordan has reached that very crossroads after effectively securing the All Blacks this year’s Tri-Nations when he scored two tries in two minutes after coming off the bench with 15 minutes left in the second test against the Pumas.

There comes a point when good luck starts to seem more like good management. A point when the evidence suggests that the uncanny isn’t that at all, but calculated, deliberate and sustainable.

Will Jordan has reached that very crossroads after effectively securing the All Blacks this year’s Tri-Nations when he scored two tries in two minutes after coming off the bench with 15 minutes left in the second test against the Pumas.

Jordan didn’t turn the game in the sense that he arrived and the momentum suddenly swung in favour of the All Blacks. It wasn’t one of those rags to riches injections at all.

The All Blacks’ domination of the Test had been total. They had held the ball pretty much for the entire 65 minutes before Jordan arrived and had played almost exclusively in Argentina’s territory.

But what had been missing up until Jordan’s arrival was the killer blow: the additional tries the All Blacks needed to grab the bonus point and with it, near certainty they will be crowned champions next week from the comfort of their managed quarantine back in New Zealand.

Will Jordan celebrates with Beauden Barrett and Rieko Ioane after scoring his second test try against Argentina. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

It had become almost painful seeing the All Blacks, with two tries and a 17-0 lead, spend a solid 15 minutes in the middle of the second-half unable to find a way through what was another remarkable scrambling defensive effort from the Pumas.

There were times when it seemed impossible that the All Blacks wouldn’t score and yet that vital try never came – and as each attempt to score was thwarted, the sense deepened that frustration would soon kick in and New Zealand’s big chance would be blown.

And then the dam broke when Jordan, with lightning speed, pounced on a dropped ball from another failed Pumas backs move and within three metres had escaped the clutches of the last defender which enabled him to cruise the other 40 metres to score.

Two minutes later he chose to jam in from his right wing on defence, which was an inspired decision. The timing was perfect as the Pumas didn’t see him move late and he managed to stick his right arm out, bump the intended pass up in the air to catch it himself and then, again, accelerate and swerve to be free from the chasing defenders and score.

But what had been missing up until Jordan’s arrival was the killer blow: the additional tries the All Blacks needed to grab the bonus point and with it, near certainty they will be crowned champions next week from the comfort of their managed quarantine back in New Zealand.

From being 17-0 when Jordan came on, four minutes after his arrival it was 31-0 and the All Blacks had their bonus point. Was he simply lucky? In the right place at the right time?

The answer is yes to the second part but no to the first and what’s become clear about the 22-year-old outside back in 2020 is that he is not living off luck.

It’s highly refined rugby instincts that have enabled him to be in the right place at the right time all season and be not only a spectacular scorer of tries, but a scorer of spectacular tries.

He finished Super Rugby Aotearoa as the competition’s most prolific scorer, but the numbers don’t tell the story of how important many of his tries were: the influence they had on changing the game.

Jordan was the man who delivered the winning tries for the Crusaders against the Blues and Chiefs; he was the man who found a way through the staunch Highlanders defence with 10 minutes left of the final game to win the title.

It was Jordan who rose high above Mitch Hunt in August to grab Richie Mo’unga’s cross-kick and win the South the inter-island fixture three minutes after the final whistle and it was Jordan who provided the All Blacks with the breakthrough moment in their final test of 2020.

Jordan proved his aerial prowess by plucking a cross-field kick out of the air to score the winning try in the 2020 North Island v South Island game. (Photo by Grant Down/AFP via Getty Images)

Captain Sam Cane, clearly as delighted as he was relieved that the losing streak had ended, said after the 38-0 victory: “Will Jordan has an uncanny knack of being able to make things happen when he comes on.”

It was eerily reminiscent of former captain Richie McCaw, who spent many a post-match interview between 2012 and 2015 making reference to the contribution of another uncanny youngster called Beauden Barrett.

There was no one quite like Barrett in that period for making an impact off the bench. He was the All Blacks’ game-changer back then – supremely quick, agile and alert, his fresh legs and natural rugby instincts would take him to curious places where he would score tries that required imagination and a depth of class.

It was eerily reminiscent of former captain Richie McCaw, who spent many a post-match interview between 2012 and 2015 making reference to the contribution of another uncanny youngster called Beauden Barrett.

Jordan is now shaping as much the same player. Maybe he doesn’t have the breadth of skill as Barrett but he’s as quick, he’s as instinctive and he’s similarly equipped to roam in areas where defences don’t quite know what he’s doing until it’s too late.

There have been a few missing pieces in the All Blacks jigsaw for some time, and the lack of a game-changing, bench impact player has been one which has hurt them for almost five years now.

Once they lost Barrett to the starting team in 2016, they were never able to find a similar, rip-them-apart at the death sort of player to replace him on the bench.

They thought Damian McKenzie was going to be that late impact player – his blinding pace and acceleration potentially lethal from the backfield against a tiring defence. But injury has derailed him and maybe too his confidence has declined.

In some respects, Barrett’s shift to fullback in 2019 was partly about giving the All Blacks the best of both world’s – the dual-playmaking they felt they needed and the destructive back-field runner who could cause carnage in the last 20 minutes.

Beauden Barrett was once one of the best finishers in world rugby. A permanent starting role has somewhat subdued his impact for the All Blacks. (Photo by Ashley Western/MB Media/Getty Images)

But it never really worked -not the late impact part – because it’s hard for a player who has been on the field for 60 minutes to suddenly make a dramatic difference in the last 20. The dynamic has to change – the defence has to be asked a new question and that only happens when they have to face a new player.

Jordan seems like he’s the one and while that may be a revelation to the rest of the world, it’s certainly not to the All Blacks coaching staff.

Former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen had put Jordan on the national team’s radar as far back as 2016. Jordan was at Christchurch Boys’ High School – the South Island’s famed producer of prodigious talent – often playing against Hansen’s son. Every now and again Hansen, in his parental capacity, would see Jordan from a muddy sideline on a Saturday morning and get a glimpse of a future star.

The former coach wasn’t one to get too excited about schoolboy talent, believing the journey was too long and treacherous from there to the test arena to see it as inevitable. But he felt Jordan had incredible pace and instincts – two things that can’t be coached and which gave him a basis to be something extraordinary if he could supplement his natural gifts with hard work and application.

Jordan seems like he’s the one and while that may be a revelation to the rest of the world, it’s certainly not to the All Blacks coaching staff.

Jordan has delivered on the hard work front and he’s also shown a depth of resilience in the way he has battled against constant injury disruption: the youngster barely played in 2018 due to concussion and then missed half of 2019 with a knee injury.

That he’s made it through those additional obstacles has only heightened the belief that Jordan could now be the man who takes occupancy of the All Blacks number 23 jersey in this World Cup cycle and produces endless magical moments at the tail end of big games.

Finally, it looks like the All Blacks have their impact player – their game-changer, their point of difference to conjure something impossible, almost unimaginable, in the final quarter. They have their miracle man and Jordan isn’t living off good luck, he’s operating on well honed, highly attuned skills that make him the sort of player defences – even the most crushing which are all so common at the moment – can’t quite close down.

“Isn’t he [Jordan] great at picking up plums – he does it brilliantly well,” beamed an ecstatic All Blacks coach Foster from Newcastle. “It was the end result of a lot of defensive pressure. We had scoreboard pressure on them and I thought our defensive line came up a lot better today, and we took advantage of that.”